It’s a long-awaited technological milestone for the nation’s third-largest transit system, and it comes at an opportune time, giving customers fearful of the coronavirus a touchless way to pay. Customers need only hold their phones within four inches of the fare target, Metro said.
A virtual fare card will replace the physical SmarTrip cards once a customer chooses to go mobile. The mobile card can be accessed through Apple Wallet and also by downloading a new Metro app, available free in the App Store. Users do not have to download the Metro mobile app to use the Apple Wallet feature.
An Android version is still under development, Metro said.
“This is a game changer for our customers,” Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld said. “It’s all about the customers. It’s a much safer, faster, more convenient way to enter our system to put dollars on your card or your wallet now. It is really the future.”
Other transit systems using Apple Wallet include those in London, China, Hong Kong and Japan, according to Apple.
“Residents in the Washington D.C. area who rely on SmarTrip now have a safer way to pay for their rides using just their iPhone or Apple Watch,” Apple Pay Vice President Jennifer Bailey said in a statement.
“By adding their SmarTrip cards to their Apple devices, riders can take advantage of this ‘tap and go’ experience and also be assured that their transaction information is secure and private,” she said.
As of Tuesday afternoon, some iPhones (including this Washington Post reporter’s) still did not have a prompt in their Apple Wallets to add the virtual SmarTrip card. Apple said a software update would arrive on all its phones gradually throughout the day and all compatible phones should have it by Wednesday morning. The virtual cards are compatible with the iPhone 8 and higher and on Apple Watches series 3 and higher.
To find the new Metro app, search “SmarTrip” in the App Store; it does not show up under searches for “Metro.”
Metro invested $20 million in the project, including development of the mobile app and the upgrade of fare collection systems at all 91 Metro stations and about 1,500 buses. Officials expect some cost savings will be realized as vending machines and fare collection services are phased out. Metro officials would not disclose what they are paying Apple for the service.
The cost, however, officials said, is outweighed by the need to modernize Metro, which has for decades relied on refrigerator-size kiosks developed in the 1980s to vend and reload fare cards. Wiedefeld described the mobile payment system as a bigger development than when the transit system did away with paper fare cards in 2016.
The transit agency estimated that 95 percent of its riders have smartphones. According to the International Data Corporation, a market researcher of consumer technology, Apple was the No. 1 global phone seller in 2019.
“It’s just part of everything that you do, no matter where you go, you have your smartphone,” Wiedefeld said. “Now you have the ability to use this system.”
Wiedefeld said the system would be particularly useful for tourists. “When they come in, for instance, they don’t have to get a card. They just have their smartphone, and they just get on and go,” he said.
At the Georgia Avenue-Petworth Metro station Tuesday afternoon, riders observed by a Post reporter were still using their regular SmarTrip cards, though some were aware of the mobile rollout.
Lasalle Johnson, a carpentry mason who was waiting for the Green Line south to head home to Southeast D.C., said he heard about the mobile payment system on the morning news. Johnson, 48, was headed out the door at the time and didn’t have time to transfer his card to his iPhone, but said he planned to once he was back home.
“It’s much more easy and convenient,” he said, adding that he would no longer have to look for a working vending kiosk. “Now I just have to tap my phone and keep it moving.”
Kelsey Donnellan, 30, who has an iPhone X, got excited reading about the new virtual fare card on a notice Metro had posted at the station.
“I’ve lost so many cards over the years,” she said. “It’s more of a convenience, but it should have been done long ago.”
Metro had pledged in December to roll out the mobile system this year. Meeting that goal is a boost for the agency in what has been an otherwise dismal year for it and transit systems nationwide because of the coronavirus pandemic. Transit systems have suffered steep ridership and revenue losses and are relying on dwindling federal aid to stay solvent.
Several U.S. transit systems are using various forms of mobile payment systems. New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority released its OMNY contactless fare payment system last year, and the Chicago Transit Authority uses a system called Ventra. San Francisco and Boston systems also accept mobile payment.
It was a more complex process to develop a system that would work with Metro’s distance-based fare system, officials said, and therefore took longer.
Metro said the virtual card will work even if a rider’s phone dies, using a small amount of emergency power that dead iPhones retain to quickly begin recharging once connected to a power source.
The system includes auto-reload features, and the new funds will be available instantaneously instead of hours later as when using Metro’s website to reload cards, officials said.
Metro began trying to create a mobile payment system more than five years ago when it launched a pilot program that allowed passengers to use their smartphones, debit and credit cards to pay for rides at 10 Metro stations and on six Metrobus routes.
The transit system canceled the $25 million project months later citing a lack of interest. Smartphones have since become essential in everyday life, and customers have been clamoring for a mobile payment system.
A 2019 research study also found that technology used to run SmarTrip cards was “becoming increasingly outdated.”
“With poor user experience, [Metro] risks losing users to other more effortless and seamless modes of transportation, like Uber, Lyft, Bikeshare, and others,” the report said. It found that Metro’s SmarTrip card system was difficult to learn, requiring a user to tap the card to reload at kiosks and again after paying.
Metro’s new app includes alerts, real-time train arrivals and a trip planning feature.
“At the end of the day, you know, this is about customers,” Wiedefeld said. “It’s about attracting customers. So that’s where the payoff is.”